Opinion: Colleges should be more flexible with nontraditional students

Vendors sell Morris Brown College jackets on the campus in Atlanta on Thursday, April 28, 2022. The Atlanta college is embracing competency-based learning. (Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Vendors sell Morris Brown College jackets on the campus in Atlanta on Thursday, April 28, 2022. The Atlanta college is embracing competency-based learning. (Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

To mark HBCU Week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is running a series of guest columns that examine the role of historically Black colleges and universities and the challenges that face them. The White House hosted the 2023 National HBCU Week Conference in Arlington, Virginia, this week with the theme of “Raising the Bar: Forging Excellence through Innovation & Leadership.” The AJC guest columns also speak to those themes.

Today, Kevin James, president of Morris Brown College, urges HBCUs to recognize that not all learning occurs in a college classroom and credit students for demonstrated mastery attained outside of their walls. Here are links to five guest columns that have already appeared: Harry Williams of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, David A. Thomas, Morehouse president, Spelman Provost Pamela Scott-Johnson, Clark Atlanta University President George T. French and Walter Kimbrough, former president of Dillard University.

By Kevin James

Morris Brown College has undergone a remarkable transformation, experiencing a 1,525% increase in growth since achieving accreditation last year. When I assumed office in 2019, the institution enrolled a mere 20 students. Today, the student body has swelled to 325, and the momentum continues to build. A significant portion of Morris Brown’s recent enrollees are adult learners eager to complete their degrees.

A largely untapped opportunity within the realm of historically Black colleges and universities is competency-based education. This innovative pedagogical approach hinges on students demonstrating their mastery of a subject by applying knowledge gleaned from prior life experiences. It facilitates accelerated learning while ensuring students genuinely grasp the subject matter. Morris Brown College stands out as one of the few HBCUs championing credit for prior learning opportunities. These encompass the recognition of military and workforce training, national examinations and portfolio development.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Competency-based education (CBE) is an educational approach that focuses on the development of specific skills and knowledge, with an emphasis on mastery of those competencies rather than time spent in a traditional classroom. This approach offers several benefits to students:

Personalized Learning. CBE allows students to progress at their own pace, which means they can spend more time on areas where they need additional help and move quickly through topics they already understand. This personalization can lead to a deeper understanding of the material.

Mastery Oriented. In CBE, students are required to demonstrate mastery of each competency before moving on to the next. This ensures that they have a solid foundation in the subject matter before advancing, reducing knowledge gaps and promoting long-term retention.

Flexibility. CBE is often delivered through online platforms, which offer flexibility in terms of when and where students can learn. This flexibility is particularly beneficial for nontraditional students, such as working adults, who may have other responsibilities.

Real-World Relevance. Competencies in CBE are often aligned with real-world skills and job requirements. This makes the education more relevant and applicable to students’ future careers.

Motivation and Engagement. Knowing that they must demonstrate mastery can motivate students to take ownership of their learning. When students see their progress and accomplishments, they tend to be more engaged and motivated to continue learning.

Cost-efficiency. CBE can be cost-effective for both students and institutions. Since students progress at their own pace, they may be able to complete their education more quickly, potentially saving on tuition and living expenses.

Reduced Time to Degree. CBE can allow students to complete their degree or program more quickly than traditional methods, which can be especially appealing to those looking to enter the workforce sooner.

Skill Development. CBE places a strong emphasis on developing specific skills and competencies, which can enhance students’ job readiness and competitiveness in the job market.

Continuous Learning. Competencies often build upon one another, promoting a continuous learning mindset. Students are encouraged to keep building new skills and knowledge throughout their careers.

Enhanced Assessment. CBE relies on robust assessment methods, such as performance tasks and demonstrations, which can provide a more accurate and holistic evaluation of a student’s abilities compared to traditional exams and grades.

Accessibility. Online CBE programs can be accessible to a wider range of students, including those with disabilities or those who live in remote areas, increasing educational opportunities for diverse populations.

It’s important to note that while CBE offers numerous benefits, it also requires a high level of self-discipline and motivation from students, as they are responsible for managing their own learning pace and progress. Cost savings and accelerated completion time have been the most important benefits to students at Morris Brown College over the past two years. Additionally, the success of CBE depends on the quality of the curriculum, assessments, and support systems in place, which may vary among institutions and programs.

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